I’ve hardly been hiding my disagreement with the coalition government and its spending review. I believe their approach to social policy is about as wrong as it’s possible to be, but my disagreement is actually more about means than it is about purpose.
Iain Duncan-Smith’s desire to reform welfare is not in itself either wrong-headed or immoral. His identification of the “culture of dependency” as an element of the problem of welfare is not without seriousness, nor is it mistaken. And it’s not of course new either. Sir Keith Joseph’s articulation in the 1970s and 80s of the “cycle of deprivation” was describing exactly the same issue. In fact, the recognition of the “inheritability” (for the avoidance of doubt, not meant in a literal, genetic sense) of disadvantage, physical and moral, is a major biblical theme expressed in passages such as that in Deuteronomy about “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me”. It’s pretty idle to try and deny that children growing up with alcohol or drug addicted parents, with domestic violence, in poverty, with emotional neglect or any other of the almost infinite varieties of cruelty and dysfunction that too many of our children are subjected to, will not be deleteriously affected by it. It’s obviously true that not all these circumstances have anything to do with poverty (other than poverty itself, of course) and still less that poverty is necessarily a causation of these other disadvantages. But we do know that there is a strong correlation between poverty and multiple deprivation of these other sorts.
This is not about inevitability, and we all know about those exceptional people that have overcome unimaginable privations as children to be successful and rich adults. But of course rags-to-riches stories are interesting in a way that rags-to-rags stories are not. They are also infinitesimally less common. They tell us precisely nothing about what might intervene in the cycle for the majority of children affected by it. These individual stories are mostly irrelevant, but they are worse than that: they feed in the popular imagination the notion that all it takes to emerge untainted from a difficult background is guts and hard work. Thus the converse is also embedded in the public consciousness: that those who do not emerge untainted must be both lazy and cowardly. This is why, to our collective shame, 64% of the British people applaud the coalition’s attack on welfare, and think that protecting the well-off (as opposed to the filthy rich) is morally superior to assisting the poor.
But there is an intractable problem that those of us opposed to these attacks on the poorest need to face. It is also true that some of the ways we have traditionally tried to redress the balance have in fact contributed to the very problem that they were designed to deal with. The “dependency culture” is not simply a figment of the right-wing imagination. The government’s policies will make the position worse because they will tend to concentrate poverty both in severity and in geography, as I argued in my last post. This is likely to reinforce dependency, not break it down. Those of us on the left cannot argue that the welfare system doesn’t need fixing because it isn’t broken. It’s obviously broken because it obviously doesn’t work – if by working we mean that it assists in breaking dependency and the cycles of deprivation.
I have no prescription to offer. But it is perhaps a start to acknowledge honestly that a new prescription is needed. I will continue to argue against this government’s methodology. But I know also that if we keep doing the same thing on welfare, we’ll continue to end up in the same place. We have to re-think it. Now is the time to start.